DIY can signify a kind of independent music space, a rejection of artistic outlets backed by corporations, or the refusal to pay someone else to fix your sink. And in an unstable time, DIY can simultaneously be an aesthetic, a moral imperative, and an escape plan. Roberto Lange, who does business as Helado Negro, is one of the best guides we have: a musician who began as a visual artist and built the tools he needed to warp the world.
When reached by phone, Lange was in Miami, DJing the opening gala for the British artist Daniel Lismore. (Lange’s parents are from Ecuador, and moved first to New York in the 1960s, then to Miami in the ‘70s and then, after five years, to Fort Lauderdale, where Lange grew up.) The gala was being hosted by the Savannah College of Art and Design, which Lange attended from 1999 to 2003.
“I taught myself how to make music and how to sing,” Lange told me. “I am interested in plenty of things but I am never trying to co-opt them, I just want to find it the way I can find it.”
Private Energy, his tenth release as Helado Negro, is one of the most remarkable albums of the past year. Lange is nestled in the space between electronic textures and vocal-driven pop. His taste tends towards the gentle and sustained; rhythms are threaded into songs that grow like vines under the rays of his voice. That image is full-blown New Age but that is part of the temperament at play here. Helado Negro is an anti-cynicism machine, subtly reiterating its peaceful nature in two languages.
Lange began making music in the late ‘90s, futzing around with SoundEdit and Pro Tools on his older brother’s computer. Once enrolled at SCAD, he studied film, computer animation, and sound—but never music. He was already making it on the side. “In the beginning, my ambition was finding sounds and understanding where they came from. I was using an [Akai] MPC sampler and a computer. Then I started working with musicians and sampling them, an improvisational process.”
“One of the first collaborative projects I started is called ROM, with my friend Matt Crum,” Lange said. “When I met him, he had a drum machine, pedals and a one of those candy-colored iMacs. He would drive up from Miami to Savannah every other weekend. I had an MPC and I was beginning to use Max/MSP and Reaktor on my computer. We created a process where we would just elaborate on loops, and then move on to the next thing.” Still a going concern, ROM put out an album of shimmery, burping instrumentals called Possible Mountain this year.
Lange moved to New York in 2006, and his music started to drift away from electronic sources. He started singing in 2008, the year he turned 28, and recorded the first Helado Negro album, Awe Owe, released the following year on Asthmatic Kitty. On the record, Lange sings entirely in Spanish, and the instrumentation is acoustic, largely, with some digital framing: guitars, strings, marimbas, and a trunk of other things, all recorded in Lange’s bedroom. (Lange cited the 1972 debut by Brazilian musician Arthur Verocai as a major influence on him during this time.)
After Awe Owe, Helado Negro began releasing a steady stream of albums and EPs, and Lange wanted to develop a visual language for his stage shows. At the Vive Latino festival held in Mexico City in March 2014, he was assigned a daytime slot. He wanted to present something that would work in the unforgiving setting of full sunlight, outside the nightclub box. He and his wife, artist Kristi Sword, created four costumes to be worn by dancers who would appear on stage with Lange. (Imagine an oversized poncho made entirely from silver strands of tinsel that has enlarged and grown up over your head so you can’t see anything. That.) Lange was not a choreographer, or a costume designer, but he charged ahead and made what he now calls the Tinsel Mammals.
“I never wanted the association that comes from holding an instrument on stage,” Lange said. “It gives the audience everything immediately—there’s no difficulty in the interpretation. I wanted to figure out how to constantly make people’s eyes shift across the stage without relying on projections or a traditional stage set-up. The tinsel costumes ended up being mesmerizing and weird, dreamy and happy and odd.”
The Tinsel Mammals are now a part of Lange’s stage show, which also includes a small battery of colored bulbs that pulse in reaction to certain parts of each song. Over the course of two and a half years, Lange has become a DIY choreographer.
“I did 80 or 90 shows in 2014. I would send out an invitation on social media for volunteers to be Tinsel Mammals. Random people would show up, people who had no experience in movement or dance. I learned from them what to do, and how much time it takes for somebody to learn something,” he told me.
Lange went on, “I give people a list of rules now, about five moves. Within these, there’s a linear progression that allows them to have moments of option and improvisation, but because they have this universal vocabulary that we’ve established together, it creates this complete illusion like we’ve been working on it for years. They start when they hear me singing and they stop when the music stops. And I always tell them to start to their left. That’s two—I can’t tell you all of them.”
The costumes work in both large and small venues, and provide a handy metaphor for the music. Things that shine don’t need to be particularly complex to reflect an immense variety of light. Just crinkle things a little and stay positive. In another moment, this could feel naïve—but not now. “The anonymity of the costume works,” Lange said. “The minute they put it on, they’re so happy. The volunteer becomes this shiny, sparkling person—literally and metaphorically.”
Politics are woven into Helado Negro songs, if not always directly. “Espuma Negra” off Awe Owe contains the words “lagos con sangre negra,” which Lange confirmed are a reference to the decades-long pollution around the Lago Agrio oil field in Ecuador. On Private Energy, Lange pushes the politics forward, this time in English, addressing identity in “Young, Latin and Proud” and “It’s My Brown Skin.” On November 7, those were both low-key affirmations. On November 9, they became quietly defiant.
“I felt great that people were empowered,” Lange said. “After the election, I saw people rocking their Young, Latin and Proud t-shirts. We were all feeling sad and nervous. And we had just put out “It’s My Brown Skin,” a romantic self-love anthem. You can romance yourself and not have it be sexual. But then someone brought up how dangerous the words sound at the end, where I repeat ‘It’ll keep you safe.’ Now it makes me nervous. I get worried that the words would put people in danger. How I feel is so nebulous right now.”